There are few things I would like less than to write my About page, or an artist’s statement. I am breaking this down into sub-topics that will hopefully make this painless.
Growing up in Southern California, two constant influences were the California Pottery tradition and animals. California Pottery figured in everything from family knicknack collections to housing to public installations. My family had collected Hagen-Renakers miniatures and even some of Robyn Sikking’s work. Traditional tilework is everywhere, on shopping mall fountains, Balboa Park, public buildings, etc.
We always had rescues and various pets in my family. I did some drawing from life at San Diego Zoo and the former “Wild Animal Park” in the outskirts of Escondido. Sadly, I did not live in horse country; I commuted. I worked three years at a stable in San Marcos, not far from the former Freeman-McFarlin/Hagen-Renaker pottery. When I wasn’t working, I was drawing the horses at the barn.
I collected figures of animals, especially horses. Luckily, the model horse hobby was very strong in CA, and there were plenty of local events when I entered the hobby in 1989. The hobby was an enormous influence on my art style, critiques, and networking. The influence of Maureen Love is evident in my work. She was the first professional artist to critique my sketchbooks, when I was still in high school. It’s hard to believe that I started out as a Breyer collector, sold them all, and now I sculpt for Breyer. Nonetheless, I am still very active in the hobby. I collect Hagen-Renaker ceramics, and yes, I have sculpted for them, too. It can’t be emphasized enough that my first ambitions in art were inspired, and facilitated, by this community. I still participate in judging, competing, creating logo art, donating art, and writing for the hobby.
Through people I met in the hobby, I was introduced to artists and companies that gave me on-the-job training as a sculptor. I went through three apprenticeships. I did not complete my art degree in college, as while enrolled, I was discovered, trained, and entered the real world as a designer. By the time I was 21, I had already designed animals for product lines in ceramics, resin, and plastic. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning, however.
It gets old to hear people say, “Oh, I was different and didn’t fit in” when they refer to their early years. Everyone has their challenges, it’s part of life. I just pushed through each day, trying to survive. Before college, school was a place of deep, systemic stress. I was in honors and gifted classes, so it wasn’t the studies that bothered me (I seldom cracked a textbook)- it was just being there.
My real life was outside of school. My friends were mostly adults, well out of school, but all intelligent, readers, and continuous learners. My art study interests ran the gamut of art history, from cave painters forward, with more detail on animal art than offered in my Art History college classes. I believed that if I just practiced and studied past masters, if I trained my eye, I could reach the level of art that I admired. I never felt I had a talent for art, but I had an interest in it. I collected it. I saw what talented young artists’ works looked like, and was keenly aware that my stuff wasn’t the same caliber, neither technically nor conceptually. I only acknowledged that I had a talent for focus, for memory, and for discipline. One of my brutally-honest riding trainers once said, “You may not have been born rich, you may not have been born with natural [riding] talent, but you have tremendous self-discipline, and that will get you there.” Well, she meant professional equestrian athletics, but she was right in a way.
Focus is an understatement. When I work, I have to set up reminders like a DVD playing to its shut-off, or an egg timer, or have my dogs in the room to bark when it’s time for a break. I breath very slowly, or hold my breath. Movement, such as animals in motion, objects falling, etc. appears in slow motion when I focus. I forget to eat or drink. I can’t feel anything, not even cramping fingers, until I stop. I get tunnel vision and can’t see things on my peripheral that might get knocked over or cut me. My focus is so severe that it can actually hurt me, if I do not manage it.
I was an adult before I found out why my perception, and mode of working, was so different. At 21, I received a letter from the family matriarch that revealed that I had been diagnosed as autistic at age four. My family had hidden this fact from me my whole life, hoping they could “raise” me to be normal. Given the context in which they were informed of my condition, predicting that I would end up on the streets, I can understand their response with academic pressure and those frustrating logic problem workbooks. My problem-solving via abnormal means was strongly discouraged. If only they knew then what is known now about autism spectrum disorders, like Asperger’s, perhaps it would have gone better for all of us. I didn’t forget faces, fail to interpret body language, and avoid most social situations because I was a bad person, rude, or conceited. I didn’t fear the color red, crowds, noises, landmark changes, traffic, and all those other “normal” things due to some mental illness. It is just the way my brain works. It wasn’t something I would outgrow or ever completely “fix” in myself. I still have to modify myself and examine my impulses in the face of these stimuli, to this day. In some ways, I am grateful to have an “Abby Normal” brain. I’m rather fond of the notion that I process my environment like an animal. It gives me a super focus that got me here today, making art and as an observer of nature. I notice every little thing, and often announce it, unfiltered. I pick up on the same factors that stress animals, and can read and anticipate them in ways not understood by most people. I have unusual hearing and touch (as in low sound frequency detection). Now that I am an adult, I think it’s a fair trade-off to have these gifts. I hope that parents of other children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders encourage their kids find ways to make it work for them, too.
The human race loves itself, and loves imagery lauding itself. All but one of my college professors felt I was wasting my time with animal subjects. “All the important art in the world, if you must be a slave to realism, is of the human figure.” One of my apprenticeship masters even said that if I want to become an important realistic sculptor, and make more money, I must only sculpt human figures. That is when I knew I didn’t want to be an “important” sculptor, and more money wasn’t worth it, to me. My one professor who was on my side from day one happened to be a cowboy artist and poet, with a deep respect for all things Russell, Remington, and Borein.
I’m firmly in the camp with the Animaliers. I believe that animal subjects are a worthwhile means of expressing messages through art. Further, I can speak through animal subjects in unique and novel ways, even share some inside humor and knowledge among naturalists. I can make frank commentaries about our own species through animal subjects. Animal subjects also lend themselves, like botanicals, to the decorative arts in exquisite ways. I believe the enormous range of textures, colors, modes of locomotion, and behaviors in the animal kingdom is just as worthy of being memorialized in art as any human subject. I do sculpt humans, but they are not as thrilling to me as animal art. With our awkward bipedal form, we borrow grace from animals. We amplify our greatest warriors’ honor when they are sculpted with an animal. Without the horse, an equestrian monument is just another statue.